Story and photography by Ray Waddington.
Modern day Phnom Penh is the bustling world of the kinds of people living the kinds of lives that characterize most of the world's capital cities. Poverty, though, is evident here on a larger scale than in most places in the world. It was here in 1994 that Sebastien Marot found himself on vacation. At that time very few Westerners came to Cambodia at all, except for diplomats and journalists. So what was he doing here? He was on his way to Japan, where he had lived and worked a few years earlier. Phnom Penh was a convenient stopover of just a few days.
I met him there in January, 2002 — he still hadn't made it to Japan! The whiteboard behind him was full of notes, appointment schedules and phone numbers. But the writing at the very top caught my eye the most: "Street Kids = Kids' Treat." A simple statement for sure, but like all powerful statements it can't be put any simpler. That motto has led Sebastien's life for the past eight years. When I asked him why he stayed in Phnom Penh he gave a very simple explanation.
"I was leaving a restaurant one evening around 9:30 — which was considered very late in Phnom Penh in those days. I was shocked at the number of kids I saw who were literally living on the street. I started giving out food to help them out, and soon met a couple of other foreigners who were doing the same. It didn't take us long to realize that this was no real solution to the problem." So Sebastien and his co-philanthropists formed a Non-Government Organization and on August 1, 1994 Mith Samlanh (meaning good friends) was born.
Back then it was a shelter serving as refuge from the streets for seventeen kids. Today around 1,600 street kids take advantage of a range of programs aimed at social re-integration.
Sebastien explained to me what these programs are and how they tie together. All clients take the four compulsory courses in HIV/AIDS, Drugs, Youth Reproductive Health and Child Rights. The outreach program is aimed at the homeless who live on the streets as well as those who have some regular form of shelter but whose livelihood depends on working on the streets. Outreach work is challenging, at best, in Phnom Penh, since the kids who live under these conditions have an initial, deep-seated mistrust of both adult figures and institutional intervention. The goal of the outreach work is to bring the kids into a "transitional home," from where they can take control of their own social re-integration — some never make it that far. Those who do enter vocational training or formal education. One form of the vocational training is "hands-on" from day one: Mith Samlanh runs a café in Phnom Penh where those kids who choose restaurant management as their vocation are involved in running a real restaurant as a real business! This program is more than just a way of bringing income to the organization. These kids are preparing for a career in the catering industry, be it as a chef, restaurant manager or something else. I can vouch personally for the excellent quality of the food!
However, not all kids can prepare themselves for life off the streets so directly. Camp Sabay Sabay is an intermediate path for kids who, for example, need drug detoxification and rehabilitation counseling before they are ready to take the final steps toward social re-integration. Some kids find themselves entering into the transitional home through the "Club Friends" program. Sebastien has been fortunate with this program to engage the voluntary help of visiting artists and art therapists who have used photography, theatre and graphic arts as forms of expression and catharsis to build the self-confidence that might lead the kids into the transitional home. Having seen some of the photography to come out of this program, I can say that it is very professional and moving. It has been exhibited in Hong Kong, Germany and France! You can see some of it at the Mith Samlanh website (the link is at the bottom of this page).
These days Sebastien spends most of his time in fundraising. As he explains, at a time when the number of Phnom Penh street kids is increasing, and HIV positive (mainly from prostitution) kids are developing AIDS in large numbers, the initial funders of Mith Samlanh have pulled out of further financial backing. As of now, the future of the organization is threatened. On a brighter note, on September 5, 2002, Sebastien was made an honorary member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his work.
As for Sebastien himself, after eight years he is ready to hand over the administration of Mith Samlanh and move on. "The project has been demanding, but I have no regrets," he explains. And what of the future? He has no idea right now. Maybe he'll complete the final leg of his journey from eight years ago and spend some time in Japan! If you are able to help Mith Samlah, please contact them at P.O. Box 588, #215 Street 13, Sangkat Chey Chumneas Khan Daun Penh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in Phnom Penh, please show your support by eating at Le Café Mith Samlanh, French Cultural Center, Street Keo Chea 184, Phnom Penh . Another place to eat in Phnom Penh to support street children is Joe to Go Restaurant, located northwest of the old market. It is run by an organization called The Global Child (link below).
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
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